Good Leadership? Really?

According to a December 2012 Forbes article, ( ten characteristics of good leadership are paramount for success. A brief, albeit somewhat obvious description and meaning followed each trait in the article. Below I challenge each one as I find these descriptors, vague and subject both to interpretation and even to manipulation:

  1. Honesty. Is this transparency? Is this forthrightness to all stakeholders? Or can it also describe a leader who “holds his cards close to the vest,” resists an “open kimono” style and can only be considered honest because he or she has not been caught in a blatant falsehood?
  2. Ability to delegate. No one can do everything and some micromanagers who have the bandwidth will watch every aspect of work detail carefully, course correcting their workers as deemed necessary. President Ronald Reagan was considered a good delegator while President Jimmy Carter more of a micro-manager. But if a leader is noted by his or her ability to delegate they may also be perceived as aloof, a bit lazy and unwilling to roll up their sleeves and dig into the details.
  3. Communication. Every company I worked for had a dominant method for communicating up, down and sideways across the business organization. Some utilized voice-mail distribution lists, other relied heavily on email, and the company I recently left communicated one on one, with each person finding a counterpart to help with what needed to be accomplished. Once again, one form of communication is not patently preferable to another. The mode, the means and the method must fit the needs of the company and the culture of the workers to be the best possible way for communicating efficiently and effectively.
  4. Sense of humor. I have been chastised in the past for not taking problems and work seriously enough. This largely depended upon the “man in the corner office.” If he or she had a sense of humor, others were comfortable and relaxed enough to joke with their fellow workers. But no research, at least none that I am aware of, can tie “sense of humor” to common metrics for business success such as top-line growth and profitability.
  5. Confidence. How much confidence is enough, and what kind of confidence are we talking about? As colleagues moved quickly up the corporate ladder I oftentimes witnessed an arrogance factor moving right up along with them. Certainly they would have called themselves “self confident,” as opposed to arrogant, but how did the workers perceive the individual in the main? Arrogant, cocky, know-it-all. Confidence can be a strong personality trait when it is checked and limited by humility; when the leader knows “that he doesn’t now know what he hasn’t yet learned.” Even “self-assured” can be a slippery slope. The greatest leaders and contributors have generally been the most humble. Billy Graham comes to mind in this regard.
  6. Commitment. Is this faithfulness to the leader’s vision and objectives? If so, the leader does well. If by commitment that means working many hours, traveling and pushing others to carry the same load at the expense of family and outside interests, it is a problem that will create future problems (e.g. high turnover). I’ve had several bosses who trumpeted their “commitment” slogan which all of us were smart enough to discern that this simply meant, “you’re not working hard enough.”
  7. Positive attitude.   Positive and negative are easy to understand in terms of electricity, less so when it comes to desired personality characteristics and behaviors. Some bosses will chastise their subordinate for “not having a positive attitude,” simply because they cannot get behind the boss’s latest idea. The worker may simply want to point up the weaknesses in the boss’s plans, perhaps offer up a better alternative; yet the boss concludes he has a renegade staff member he needs to attend to.
  8. Creativity. In marketing and advertising this is important. In accounting and engineering it must be carefully defined in terms of research creativity or ideas that fit the predetermined rules, framework and logic of these functions. Once again this broad construct can be used to defend perilous pursuits. Consider the creative accountant who found a means of converting a Net Loss into a Net Profit using a completely new, albeit tenuous and questionable, set of accounting assumptions underlying the financial statements. Consider Enron and Arthur Anderson.
  1. Intuition. This isn’t wholly different than Creativity. How do you demonstrate this personality construct? If the big boss is notorious for forecasting the winds of change impacting our business, as my last boss was, this is certainly a valuable characteristic to possess. But this can only be properly evaluated in hindsight; a forecast needs to play forward before the person is declared a prophet.
  2. Ability to inspire. This can be inspiration to create perspiration. It can also refer to “sales-ee” personalities that get new hires jazzed to go after a project with all their might. In the absence of this, your leader should be switched out, he or she has lost their mojo. But I am not sure you can demonstrate a direct correlation between financial metrics’ success and this personality trait.

I have read numerous and oftentimes conflicting research purporting to identify the leadership traits that will make for a successful company. I personally think this is like trying to “boil the ocean.” It is enough of a stretch to try to associate certain leadership characteristics with efficient and effective organizations. But a lot of what is called business success depends upon variables outside of the control of the leader and his or her organization. Disruptive technologies, great recessions and legislation are three of many examples of problems that can overcome the best leader with the best organization and killer products and services. Leadership characteristics are like cotton candy. We read them, we nod approvingly, and then we forget what we read until we read another and entirely different list.

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